We are going to talk about the brain because a lot goes on in the brain when someone has sex. I mean a lot goes on in our brains all the time, but we are going to talk about what happens during sex.
So, what happens in our brain when we have sex?
During sex our brains release a very powerful mixture of hormones. These hormones can affect the way we think or feel. They don't fully control us, but they do have an impact. These hormones or neurochemicals are active in the brain during any kind of sexual activity. So any time you are being sexually stimulated. This includes all four forms of sex. It doesn't matter how you have sex or what you are doing with your body the same thing happens in our brains.
The three major neurochemicals we are going to talk about are: Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Vasopressin.
The first hormone we will mention is Dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical. It makes you feel good. The reason this hormone is released is so we are motivated to repeat certain experiences that are healthy for us, well that is the intention of Dopamine at least. Our brain releases dopamine when we do things like:
Eat really good food: If we didn't feel pleasure from eating food we wouldn't eat as much and our bodies would not be able to function properly. The reason that most people get more pleasure from eating higher calorie food is because food was not always so widely available. So, when higher calorie food was found and eaten there would be more dopamine released. This food would sustain a person for longer. Today it can be a problem for us because we have so much food available, but crave the higher calorie stuff like junk food and sweets.
Exercise: If we didn't get that Dopamine rush from exercise definitely NO ONE would find enjoyment in it.
Have Sex/Orgasm: Also, if sex wasn't fun, no one would have sex and the human race would cease to exist.
So, as you can see Dopamine is an important hormone, however it is not always a good thing for us. Certain things can trick our reward center where Dopamine is released and it can be dangerous for us.
Drugs: Just because we produce dopamine during a certain activity does not mean that activity is healthy for us. Dopamine is the reason that drugs are so addictive. A large amount of dopamine is released when we do drugs. Actually anything that releases dopamine can become addictive, but it is less likely for someone to become addictive to eating because not as much dopamine is being released. (that is why Dopamine is the neurochemical behind addictions, because our brain releases certain amounts of dopamine during activities like playing video games, shopping, watching porn, or gambling. All can become addictive because dopamine is involved.)
The second hormone is Oxytocin. Oxytocin is an attachment hormone. It helps people feel connected to one another. It builds intimacy, bonds, and trust. Also known as the cuddle hormone, it creates feelings of intimacy and makes people feel nurturing. Now, Oxytocin is much more active in the brains of females than in the brains of males, but both have it. Females release Oxytocin more because Oxytocin is released during:
Labor: The mom releases Oxytocin and it connects her to her baby.
Breast feeding: This part is actually pretty cool. The mother and the baby release Oxytocin at the same time, so the baby and mother are literally sharing a neurological connection to one another.
Physical Affection: This includes anything from holding hands, to hugging, and cuddling. It’s actually been tested that if a female is hugged for 20 seconds, she automatically releases Oxytocin. Now, this is not an excuse for you to go around the school just hugging your crush until they love you. However, this is why females tend to value these activities more than the males in the relationship, because their brains are literally wired to be that way. I had a professor who is also a marriage counselor, and he told me that when women are asked if they would rather give up sex or physical affection with their partner, most of them say they’d give up sex. Interesting huh?
Sex/Orgasm: Orgasm acts as a booster for all these chemicals – it releases a larger amount during sex.
The third chemical is Vasopressin. Vasopressin is also an attachment hormone similar to Oxytocin, but it has more protective overtones. It helps people feel protective over others. It might make you feel a responsibility to care for someone. Vasopressin is more active in the brains of males than in the brains of females, but we both have it. We release Vasopressin during:
Interactions with family or children: Children are more vulnerable and need care and protection. Whether it is playing catch or braiding hair, when someone is interacting with a child, they release Vasopressin. This is why we feel protected over little people that we interact with. The amount of Vasopressin is usually highest in father-child interactions.
Sex/Orgasm: Again, orgasm acts as a booster for all these chemicals – it releases a larger amount during sex.
Okay, so these hormones are released when it comes to any form of sex. This is important to understand. Our brain plays a huge role in sex and these hormones have an IMPACT on us. I want you guys to remember that Word IMPACT.
But let us pause for minute on the brain talk and come back to it.
Now that we know a bit more about these different hormones, we are going to discuss a bit about their impact. Focusing on Oxytocin and Vasopressin, these are the bonding hormones, and impact us a significant way. They are pretty amazing and work as a kind of like relationship glue. These are released when we do a number of things like just spending time with a person or physical touch, but a large amount are produced when we have sex so the connection can be a lot deeper. Their purpose is to help us to creates bonds with people, because that is an essential part of our survival and health. Not just romantic relationships but also our friends and family. However, did you know that these two hormones can actually be weakened in a person’s brain during sex too? The opposite has been known to take place. Here is how it can happen.
Lets say that two people get into a relationship, they are together for a little while, begin to form a bond for many reasons, but part of it is the hormones that are being released . When they decide to have sex that bond is deepened immensely, for again many different reasons, but one being that they automatically release a larger amount of those hormones. As the relationship continues, they continue to have sex and the bond continues to grow. Then lets say at nine months the relationship ends. Even though these two people are not together anymore, is the bond still there? Of course! This bond does not just go away overnight. Depending on how strong it is. It can take some people months even years until they don’t feel that connection anymore or don’t think about that person all the time.
This is why breakups can really suck. Your brain is in distress. It is wondering where that person is that produced that Oxytocin and Vasopressin. However, it just takes time for your brain to adjust to a new normal. That’s why it is important for you to take time and space away from the person. I know you are going to want to see them and text them, but it is really just prolonging the healing process.
So allowing yourself time to heal is important, but what if some is like “I just want to get over this person right now”, so they move on quickly to a new person and have sex with them, what happens? Their brain knows it is a different person but since they are having sex with them, what is their brain automatically going to try and do? Bond! So it releases these hormones in the brain. The hormones are values neutral so no matter what your intentions are your brain will react the way it is wired to react. Now there isn’t enough science to break down exactly how these bonds interact, but we like to try and explain it in a simple way, because things do indeed become a bit messy. This is expected when we do not give our brains time to adjust and heal. So your brain is dealing with different bonds and there is confusion. This is why someone might jump into a relationship very soon after a breakup, but they are still think about the other person.
If this pattern continues, If they go from person to person to person to person, the impact of these hormones can start to decline and weaken. They are not being used to create a long lasting relationship so your brain goes “this is hurting me to produce these connection hormones, so I’m going to stop”. They can begin to feel the impact of these chemicals less and less over time because they are creating pattern that your brain might interpret as, "do not connect". It is actually possible to get to the point where you have effectively separated your body and it’s impulses from the rest of you.
Some people say that this is good thing. “It’s healthy! This means that I can go out and have a casual sexual experience, get my orgasm, go home, and I don’t have to worry about the emotional attachment or the messiness of a relationship. I can just go out and get mine.” Some people might think this way, and you’re welcome to that belief, but I would like to challenge us to wonder if maybe it isn’t actually healthy. I want us to understand the role and importance of Oxytocin and Vasopressin not just for our romantic relationships, but our relationships in general! They help us to build strong close relationships, which are crucial to our health and survival.
It makes me wonder for sure. I look at our society as a whole today and see that people are struggling so hard to connect, be real, and vulnerable. I wonder if this plays a part. This is just something to reflect on.
Something I want to make clear though is that even if these hormones can become less active in your brain, it does not mean that they go away all together. Every person is capable of forming strong bonds and relationships, we just have to pay attention to our mental health and the ways we may need healing. We have to acknowledge out brains through this process.
The last thing I want tot discuss is addiction, because when these two attachment hormones are weakened in the brain. What becomes the primary one released during sex? – Dopamine. When sex is no longer at all about bonding. Sex is only about dopamine, it’s only about pleasure. Now, the pleasure isn’t a bad thing. Pleasure is a great part of sex, but when sex is only about pleasure, only about orgasm, we are at risk for treating sex like it’s a substance. Compared to smoking weed to get high, or drinking wine to feel a buzz, someone may start to have sex to just have an orgasm. It’s not about a relationship; it’s just about personal pleasure. But here’s the thing. If we treat sex like a substance, it starts to act like one. So let’s talk about drug addiction for a second, because we’re probably more used to talking about this.
Let’s say I shoot heroin for the first time. I like it. It feels good. What happens the second or third I use it? Right, I’ll get used to it. My body starts developing a tolerance. So what do I do? I up the dose. And that fixes my problem forever? Aright so I up the dose again, and again. I repeat this process until I develop a dependency, and I’m not shooting heroin to feel good. I don’t even like the way it feels anymore. I’m just shooting heroin to keep from shaking, to keep from having withdrawal pains.
Now, sex is different than drugs, they won't affect our physical body in the same way, but both can be addictive and affect our brain in the same way.
All addiction is tied to dopamine. You need more and more of the substance to get the same dopamine effect as you did the first time. You build a tolerance to the substance. Your brain gets used to it. It is the same with sex. We can build a tolerance to how we get aroused sexually. Sexual addictions, pornographic addictions are very real. And they actually work a lot like a drug addiction.
Obviously not every person will be affected in this way, but it is just important to talk about and be aware of, so again we can make sure we are making the healthiest decisions for ourselves.